'Catastrophic' risk of death for 300,000 Yemeni children trapped by attack

'Catastrophic' risk of death for 300,000 Yemeni children trapped by attack

The Red Sea port, controlled by Iran-aligned rebels known as Houthis, is the main point of entry for food and medicine in the war-torn country, which is already on the brink of starvation. But it could set off a prolonged street-by-street battle that inflicts heavy casualties.

Reem al-Hashimy, the UAE minister of state for worldwide cooperation, has said if the port is wrested from the Houthis, the coalition could ease controls aimed at denying the group arms and ease the flow of goods and aid into Yemen, where millions face starvation and disease.

The Saudi-led coalition has been accused of conducting indiscriminate and unlawful airstrikes, as well as blocking food, fuel, and medicine into Yemen, according to Human Rights Watch. Around two-thirds of the country's population of 27 million relies on aid and 8.4 million are already at risk of starving.

Before dawn Wednesday, convoys of vehicles appeared to be heading toward the rebel-held city, according to videos posted on social media.

Large-scale ground operations, supported by the air and naval forces of the Saudi-led coalition, began to move in on the city from numerous directions, a military source told the publication. In August 2015, air strikes disabled four giant mobile cranes, drastically slowing the unloading of food until they were replaced by the United States - which supports the coalition - this January.

Jolien Veldwijk, acting director for Care International in Yemen, told Al Jazeera that the port of Hudaida is crucial for aid agencies to be able to do their work.

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Yemeni residents in the Red Sea port city of Hodeida say the Saudi-led coalition has dropped leaflets advising them to stay away from military and security points, and to stay in their homes, amid the coalition's assault.

The officials said government forces have headed to the eastern coast aiming at cutting off a rebel supply line between Hodeida and Sanaa. They spoke on condition of anonymity as they weren't authorized to brief journalists.

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The operation, called Golden Victory, was launched after "exhausting all peaceful and political means", Yemen's government said in a statement.

The Trump administration last week was reportedly considering helping the UAE, which is part of the Saudi-led coalition, in an assault on Hodeidah.

"The Houthi's continued obstruction with regards to Hodeidah is due to their use of the port to raise revenues through looting, extortion, and illegal taxation imposed on commercial ships to finance and sustain their military aggression against Yemen and neighboring countries", he added. There was no immediate confirmation from the coalition. The U.S. Navy's 5th Fleet, whose area of responsibility includes the Red Sea, referred questions to the Pentagon, which did not immediately respond to a request for comment.

Field commanders said that troops pushed towards Hodeida airport after Yemeni pro-government forces received a "green light" from the coalition. The port is some 150 kilometres (90 miles) southwest of Sanaa, Yemen's capital, which has been in Houthi hands since September 2014.

The United Nations said it was engaged in "intense" shuttle diplomacy between the Houthis and coalition leaders Saudi Arabia and the UAE to avert an all-out attack.

The United Nations and other aid groups already had pulled their global staff from Hodeida ahead of the rumoured assault.

"Hodeidah port remains open to shipping".

United Nations resident and humanitarian co-ordinator for Yemen Lise Grande, speaking by telephone from Sanaa, said that her office was drawing up options to ensure aid delivery to millions of Yemenis "in case of a possible siege of Hodeidah", including a humanitarian airlift.

Aid agencies have said the battle may exacerbate an already catastrophic humanitarian situation in a country devastated by three years of civil war.

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